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Retail Mobile Apps: The Case for (and Against)

R/M

Retail mobile apps are some of the most visible in-store innovations to customers. Many retailers push these apps through point of sale promotions and glossy television or online ads, encouraging shoppers to download and install the app in order to receive a promotional offer in addition to the potential quality of life improvement of having a digital assistant for their in-store experience. It’s become a standard kind of narrative repeated through advertising for years now, but how much truth is there? Can these apps really provide the kind of revolutionary leap forward in brick-and-mortar shopping they so often imply?

 

The Advantages

For the customer, the advantages of retail mobile apps are pretty obvious. Big box stores can, by their very nature, be somewhat daunting to navigate. It can be difficult for shoppers to find the products they’re looking for. And while merchandising and operations teams are always looking for new methods to organize stores in more intuitive and easier to navigate ways, an added tool is a bonus. Mobile apps can provide inventory information to customers, allowing them to check if a store carries a particular item. They can also provide aisle location information, helping users to find what they’re looking for with less effort while freeing up associates to spend extra time on more complicated customer requests and merchandising projects.

These apps can also dovetail into parallel initiatives to innovate existing retail paradigms. Amazon has, deployed a companion mobile app for the Amazon Go automated grocery concept. Customers scan their phone on entry and the app takes care of payment from there, adding items to a virtual cart as the shopper selects products. Then, the app automatically charges the customer from the app once they leave the store. Similarly, Prime members can enjoy all sorts of discounts at Whole Foods, as well as an enhanced shopping experience.

Meanwhile, Kroger’s app (as well as the one for their Fred Meyer brand) not only aids with finding and selecting items, but also integrates into their Grocery Pickup service, formerly known as ClickList. This allows customers to shop directly from the app and pick up their order later. There’s also a dedicated app for Scan, Bag, Go, Kroger’s enhanced self-checkout program. With more and more customers using their phones and other mobile devices as their primary computers instead of bulkier laptops and desktops, fluid and well-maintained apps are becoming increasingly important.

Retail mobile apps also offer new opportunities for retailers to break into the mobile payments space. Walmart has had lots of success with its Walmart Pay app, bringing proprietary and easy to use payments to thousands and thousands of users. This has also come with a rejection of Apple and Google’s mobile payment systems, but not without reason: Walmart Pay offers discounts and other promotions to customers, and seamlessly links into Walmart’s operations.

 

Pitfalls of Retail Mobile Apps

However, successfully deploying a mobile app is about more than just ambitious features and customer incentives. Apps cost a lot of time and money to do right. Unfortunately a high percentage of users download and open an app once and never use it again. Releasing an app for the sake of it isn’t smart. The most successful retailers in this space are the ones who produce apps that are easy to use and serve a clearly defined purpose. A quick look at any app store will yield plenty of low-star reviews for largely abandoned retail mobile apps.

Of course, with more tech finding its way into retail every year it seems increasingly likely that retailers who have yet to buy into app development or who did so in the past and abandoned their efforts will bring mobile solutions into their stores. It’s important to take care that the app is not seen as a distraction, but is instead part of a larger retail strategy.

 

The Future

The tech/retail convergence marches on, with even lower profile brands like Flying J making big investments into innovations in the hope of bridging the gap between the online and brick-and-mortar worlds. It’s important to remember that mobile apps are not a replacement for existing retail operations and customer service models, but rather an additional tool. For example, Kroger is rolling out electronic shelf tags that will not only make life easier for merchandising teams but also connect to customers’ mobile devices, changing the in-store experience for the better on multiple levels. Tech like augmented reality and virtual reality that used to be out of the reach of consumers are already on their smartphones, and AR is looking like the next big mobile innovation for retail. The verdict is clear: retail mobile apps are here to stay. It’s up to retailers to make the most of them.

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